BOOK REVIEW / The present imperfect: tense: 'Open Secrets' - Alice Munro: Chatto, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THIS is a well-named collection. Alice Munro's stories are lucid and compelling. They are also extremely mysterious. They demand close attention -a word skipped or a line skimmed can be the difference between bafflement and illumination - but the prose is always supple, never knotty. It is one of this author's many subtleties that she avoids writing in a self-consciously subtle manner.

Open Secrets is Munro's eighth work of fiction, and it develops the preoccupations - and the paradoxes - of her earlier books. All her stories tell more than one story. All deliver more than they promise: they are colloquial but highly wrought, domestic but dramatic, sceptical but intense, vividly based in the life of small Canadian towns but able to reach across continents (there is an Albanian tale in this volume, and one that which touches down in Australia).

The title-story shows Munro's gifts at full stretch: it is the most limpidly expressed piece and the most puzzling. 'Open Secrets' touches quickly on the drama of several different lives. A provocative young girl goes missing on a mountain hike; a middle-aged woman is troubled by her staid husband's sudden sexual voracity; and an uncomfortable married couple report to a judge with what seems to be an accusation but may be a confession. The interweaving of these lives is delicate and transitory. What has happened - whether and how the girl was murdered - is never spelt out, although a solution is obliquely glimpsed through hints and memories.

Despite these black complexities, Munro's stories are full of buoyant moments: it is a measure of her richness as a writer that she can throw off as asides passages that other authors would use as centrepieces. In 'Open Secrets' she gives a rapid sketch of a woman, Mary Johnstone, whom you were hardly supposed to mention in Carstair without attaching the word 'wonderful': 'Whenever Maureen met Mary Johnstone on the street or in a store, her heart sank. First came that searching smile, the eyes raking yours, the declared delight in any weather - wind or hail or sun or rain, each had something to recommend it - then the laughing question. So what have you been up to, Mrs Stephens? Mary Johnstone always made a point of saying 'Mrs Stephens', but she said it as if it was a play title and she was thinking all the time, it's only Maureen Coulter.'

This scepticism and melancholy and humour give a taste of the small-town life, bristling with gossip and a sense of the past, in which Open Secrets is steeped. All but one of the seven stories have their roots in the same two nearby towns, and Munro evokes with wonderful economy the terrain from which these are carved - the creeks and river flats and wildwoods and rock pools - as well as her urban landmarks: a drinking-fountain, a food store, a high-windowed library in which lovers shelter, and a piano factory that marks the boundary of one settlement 'like a medieval town wall'.

Over the years Alice Munro has made a quiet point of smudging the distinction between novel and short story: The Beggar Maid was short-listed for the 1980 Booker Prize as a novel, although it could easily be regarded as a group of separate pieces which support but don't depend on each other; the stories in Open Secrets gain from being considered together, although their plots never overlap. What they gain is a sense of the past. 'A Wilderness Station', while unravelling an account of a murder, chronicles the earliest settlers; 'Carried Away' begins in the Second World War; the deceits practised in 'The Jack Randa Hotel' are those of Seventies hippies.

The gaps and the continuities of this history are one of Munro's most important subjects. These stories, which talk eloquently of the unexpected echoes in the lives of different people, also speak of the dissonance in our own: our pasts, Alice Munro says, make us strangers to our selves.

(Photograph omitted)